And I sit at home looking out the window, imagining the world has stopped…
The director Wes Anderson has an undeniably distinctive filmmaking style.
So much so, in fact, that there is a wildly popular Instagram account (and associated coffee table book) dedicated to sharing real-life scenes which are “accidentally Wes Anderson.”
But what exactly are those distinguishing features?
A quick scan through that Instagram feed or a marathon movie session will reveal delicately arranged symmetrical shots, grand buildings in block colours, doll’s house cross-sections, bold lettering and nautical whimsy. And the faces are often the same too, with frequent collaborators like Angelica Houston, Bill Murray, Waris Ahluwalia, Jason Schwartzmann, and Willem Dafoe appearing in different roles and guises. Whether shot on film or animated (as in the case of Isle of Dogs and the Roald Dahl adaptation The Fantastic Mr Fox), Anderson’s films share an unmistakable look.
The pretty pastels act as a delivery method for the story within, like Mendls’ beautiful cake boxes in The Grand Budapest Hotel.
But there are similarities within the boxes, too. The common threads in Anderson’s films go beyond pure aesthetics.
Sophie Monks Kaufman’s dissection of his films for Little White Lies’ Close-Ups series, artfully tugs at the threads of the auteur’s oeuvre, identifying many of the core Andersonian hallmarks.
There are sibling rivalries, reluctant fathers who are either emotionally or physically distant, boats, books published by characters, running away, luggage (literal) and baggage (emotional), and accidents and even deaths occurring around water. One particularly salient observation that Kaufman makes is the recurrence of children in adults’ clothing: both in a very real sense as in Margot’s childhood plays in The Royal Tenenbaums and Max Fischer’s dress-for-the-midlife-crisis-you-want wardrobe choices in Rushmore, and metaphorically, in the emotionally immature behaviour of Steve Zissou in The Life Aquatic, the endless squabbling of the Whitman brothers in The Darjeeling Ltd., and on and on.
Though each film has its own distinct narrative, these plot points keep resurfacing like bad pennies. These are the universal problems of Anderson’s protagonists, each experiencing similar anguishes in their own distinct ways; the same themes being explored through entirely different stories.
Though mentioned frequently throughout, Kaufman’s essays don’t discuss the role of music in these films in as much depth as the cinematic, thematic and stylistic tropes.
But I’d argue that the soundtracks and scores of Anderson’s films have just as distinctive a thumbprint as the visuals and the narrative themes.
The soundtracks, in particular, are frequently compiled from the deeper cuts of 1960s and 1970s pop royalty. His films often have a kind of jukebox that focuses on a single artist: The Life Aquatic has David Bowie, The Darjeeling Ltd. has The Kinks, and The Royal Tenenbaums has the Rolling Stones.
Although each soundtrack is complemented by plenty of songs by other artists, whether in the form of pop and rock tracks of their contemporaries or original pieces devised and recorded by frequent collaborator and former DEVO frontman Mark Mothersbaugh, or composer Alexandre Desplat, the repeated use of music by these artists at pivotal points in the films marks them out as foundational to each movie’s sound. Foundational to each movie’s feel.
The tracks chosen all contain a kind of bittersweet nostalgia; never a huge hit that you know every word to, but always something you’re sure you’ve heard somewhere before.
Often in these films, the characters experience the music being played right alongside the audience. The miniature record player in Ritchie Tenenbaum’s indoor tent plays She Smiled Sweetly as he and adopted sister Margot finally discuss their ill-fated feelings for one another. The music is an integral part of the sense of arrested development; of adults who never really grew up.
Perhaps the archetypal childish Wes Anderson character, Jack Whitman wanders through The Darjeeling Ltd. in expensive but over-sized suits, looking like a 12 year old in a Ringo Starr costume. In the Hotel Chevalier – a short film released as a prequel to The Darjeeling Ltd. – Jack queues up Peter Sarstedt’s Where Do you Go to my Lovely? in anticipation of the arrival of his estranged lover, played by Natalie Portman.
She knocks on his hotel door, and he presses play before answering. She stares at him in the doorway and, with a laugh, asks “what’s this music?”
This moment, to me, represents Anderson’s approach to building a scene, an atmosphere. Portman’s unnamed character wanders through the hotel room as the song plays, inspecting the meticulously laid out details of Jack’s room. She takes in everything as he has prepared it, while he stands in the corner, stoic and emotionally closed off.
This one scene can be read as a microcosm of Anderson’s larger work; a tense moment between affluent but emotionally stunted people, set in a beautiful and highly intentional visual and musical landscape. His films often take place at an indeterminate time, pindownable only loosely by the technology seen on screen (including the now incredibly antique-looking iPod and docking station in The Hotel Chevalier,) and the use of pop music of a certain vintage adds to this sense of timelessness. These films take place in an undetermined past: somewhere in the latter decades of the 20th Century, some time in the past, but not too distant.
The characters (and the audience) experience the world as if captured in a time capsule. Wandering aimlessly through somewhere in the modern era, but clinging steadfastly to memories of a romanticised past. The perfect backdrop for them to reveal the limited extent of their personal growth, for them to indulge in childish wonder and experience searing adolescent pain.
They’re all just children in adults clothing, listening to old pop records on toy record players.
But don’t you play this list, cause you’re playing with fire.